That’s where it all started. When I looked at a photograph in an exhibition, the thought came into my head: “I can do that.” It was a show of Henri Cartier-Bresson pictures at Nottingham University where I was supposed to be studying medicine. Naturally, I was callow, spotty and an arrogant fool; but that’s where it started. I think under that thought was a feeling, one whose strength was not yet obvious: ‘I want to do that’.
Weeks later, I’d bought my first camera – a double-stroke Leica M3 with collapsible 50mm Summicron lens, topped off with the Leicameter MR. As I couldn’t afford to buy it outright, I was persuaded to write a string of post-dated cheques – essentially a hire purchase. Of course, on my tight student grant and wafer-thin budget, these bounced within a couple of months, and I was threatened with expulsion from student halls because I couldn’t pay the rent. I had to sell it after putting only two rolls through it.
From that inauspicious beginning, I’ve been very fortunate in the spread of my photographic activity. I’ve photographed house interiors for estate agents, portraits of budding actors, publicity for local authority … no; wait; that kind of job doesn’t look good in the CV.
I helped found Wandsworth Photo Co-op which is now Photofusion. I was technical editor for Camera magazine, freelanced for many photography magazines in the UK, all the while picking up the odd photography job or two and exhibiting here and there. I was associate editor for Photography which was one of the best jobs ever. While I was supposed to be working there, the Marco Polo Expedition happened, so I took a few months’ sabbatical to shoot that.
This led to my biggest ever (still) show, at the Zamana Gallery, Kensington London: which took up the entire gallery for three months. We had a flashy catalogue and they even painted the walls specially for me, though they stopped short of covering the floor in sand, in imitation of the desert. I’ve had few shows since finding them too much work and expense for the return. But it may be time now to put on more shows.
Then I worked as a picture editor on a Sunday newspaper magazine for which I also shot a couple of stories.
After the newspaper job, I helped start up Ag+ Photographic magazine, which became Ag Magazine. And by ‘start up’ I do mean laying it out in Aldus Pagemaker, cranking the handle to get the printer going (each page – of text only – took half an hour to print), and writing more than half the first issue while crammed into a room so small that, should one of the three of us need to get up, the others had first to stand up or squeeze under their desk. It was here I filled out a job application for a lectureship at the Polytechnic of Central London. (More of that part of the story here.)
In my second year at the university, we put on a show of work from Central Asia. We got into trouble for inviting a Cabinet Minister to open it (he accepted), to mention being on very friendly terms with an Ambassador. Worse sin was to paint the exhibition lots of different colours, inspired by the colours of Central Asia.
While I was lecturing at PCL, the head security man called me aside one day. ‘Oi, you!’ (He had that charming Cockney way of addressing senior staff.) ‘Uh oh.; I’m in trouble again’ I thought. ‘Know wot, Tom?’ he asked, sotto voce ‘You’re the first lecturer around here we’ve seen carry a camera.’ Yes; indeed I was a photographer, worked as a photographer, wrote on photography all while I lectured on photography.
A few years ago I was told off by my assistant, an ex-student, when I remarked that I’m ‘not a real photographer’. ‘Never heard such poppy-cock!’ she said, in her usual delightfully forthright terms. What I meant say is that I don’t work as hard as the people I admire – the wedding photographers, the portrait photographers running High Street studios, the news photographers who wait all freezing night outside the hospital caring for a Royal Mother-to-be, and so on. I equate really hard work with being a ‘real’ photographer.
Essentially, I’m not a huge shooter. I have in my cabinets fewer than 1200 black-and-white rolls of film, and about 2000 rolls of colour transparency. And I have some 80,000 digital images rolling around the hard-disks at time of writing. It may sound a lot, but believe me, those are rather low figures for 30 years of professional photography.
But when I work, I’m a very, very fast shooter. At the wrap of a recent shoot, the assistant I’d hired remarked, possibly a bit ruefully, that I’d achieved more in a day than most photographers manage in three. Whether that’s the result of knowing what I’m doing or lack of perfectionism, I leave you to judge.
Return to Who is Tom?